Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Tufte Course Review

I attended a one-day course on data graphics yesterday, given by the justly-famous Edward Tufte. I highly recommend both the course and his books, but, as usual, have some comments.

The best parts of the course were his introduction to sparklines and his comments on the deleterious effects of Microsoft Powerpoint.

Tufte recommends a radical increase in the information density of documents and presentations. That gives documents and presentations more readability and assists the retention of information.

However, such a significant increase in information density means that in order to create a Tufte-approved presentation, one must take the time and effort to include all that additional information. One will not always have the time to do that. Office workers, military officers, stock traders and others in operational roles are often required to brief quickly, before ideas are fully formed. This, of course, never happens in science. Tufte notes that his first book required twelve years to write.

Blaise Pascal once apologized for writing a long letter, saying "The present letter is a very long one, simply because I had no leisure to make it shorter." In other words, he was saying that he did not choose to spend the time to radically increase the information density. That is an economic decision and, as we all know, all engineering is economics. Thanks to Brian S. for properly attributing the quote.

I noticed one other interesting phenomenon. At the end of the day, Prof. Tufte ended the lecture, the audience applauded and he waved. Then he basked in the applause, like a rock star or a politician. The last person I saw enjoy applause that much was Bill Clinton. Tufte has commented that his reviewers never include graphics, so here is my rendition of him basking in applause: . The image is, of course, a play on his "airport signal people".

Still, the course was interesting and thought provoking. I highly recommend it as an addendum to reading his books.


  1. Hi Dave,

    Its very neat that you met Tufte, I do have several of his books in an attic in California. I can't help but wonder does he hang out with Ted Nelson and Jakob Neilsen complaining about....everything. Not entirely unrelated is the news today that Nokia Browers based on Apple Webkit (which is based in KDE KHTML/KJS) is nearing completion. Including the 'feature' to pan around a PC sized web page and zoom into the content to read a 176x208 pixel chunk of it, yeah thats usability. Those of us who remember the glorious days of HTML 1.0 will remember the lack of absolute positioning in the spec thereby allowing content to render perfectly fine on screens in size from a postage stamp to a billboard. Those days are gone until the next revolution comes in 2008. You heard it here first!